Canadian Plastics

Researcher unveils new polymer technology based on poultry waste

It could be a new twist on the old chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the chicken or the polymer?


May 1, 2007
By Canadian Plastics

It could be a new twist on the old chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the chicken or the polymer?

A chemist based in Blacksburg, Va. is investigating ways to make biodegradable plastics using agricultural waste from the poultry industry.

Justin Barone, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, is creating plastic polymers using the keratin protein from poultry feathers that are comparable to traditional petroleum-based plastics. Barone presented his research at the 233rd American Chemical Society National Meeting, held in Chicago, Ill. in March.

In an interview with Canadian Plastics, Barone said the polymers are made using keratin from feathers, a plasticizer, crude glycerol from biodiesel, and sodium sulphite as a reducing agent. The protein-based and fully biodegradable polymers have been extruded into clear plastic film, and pelletized for use in injection molding applications.

The product is currently being refined, with attempts to create a line of aesthetically pleasing polymers that have high stiffness and high flexibility.

The focus of Barone’s research was on creating a product that can be processed in the same way as crude-based resins.

“Even the commercial biodegradable products [like PLA] have enormous crystallization times, and it’s difficult to have reasonable cycle times,” he explained.

The keratin-based polymers are almost ready for commercialization, and Barone said the product would mainly be aimed at the mass consumer products industry. “We are targeting applications that are high volume and will end up in a landfill one day, so you are mostly talking about packaging.”

The keratin polymers would also be of great use in the agricultural industry, such as in the manufacture of plastic-based plant pots.

“The horticulture industry is using an enormous amount of plastic, and all of the plastic has to get landfilled, recycled or thrown away,” Barone said. “This is a really great application because the industry is located in rural areas, where they might be a lot of chicken feathers that they can turn around and compost.”